A teenage YMCA volunteer crouched in the grass and aimed her radar gun at a five-year-old girl, who pumped her arms, lengthened her stride and bolted through the agility course.
“Thirteen miles per hour,” the volunteer told the young AFC Ann Arbor fan, who squealed with delight.
It may not have been the main event at Hollway Field at Pioneer High School on May 1, but it was definitely a highlight for the girl’s father, who high-fived his daughter after her flat-out sprint and rewarded her with a freshly-made donut from one of the local food trucks.
On the field adjacent to the YMCA course full of small victories, Associate Football Club Ann Arbor’s inaugural game in the Great Lakes Premier League was set to begin. The players come from all different skill levels, and about half are associated with the University of Michigan, competing at the club and varsity level. The other half comes from all over the nation, and some from across the world.
To the crowd’s enjoyment, two skydivers delivered the game ball from the cloudless blue sky just before kickoff. Over 2,000 fans attended the inaugural game, and the Main Street Hooligans — AFCAA’s rowdier fans — banged drums and delivered a bevy of chants from behind the home bench as the skydivers descended onto the field.
The chants projected across the pitch to the families sitting in the grandstand, where the bleachers were littered with green- and blue-clad fans. Scarves hung off of shoulders, and t-shirts emblazoned with the AFCAA crest were proudly worn. Some donned apparel that boasted the team’s slogan, “Strength in the Oak.”
Even after the 2-1 loss to San Marino, fans crowded the tables where players signed autographs. All throughout the stadium, it was clear that the city’s newest team had planted its roots in the heart of Ann Arbor.
A ragtag group of players make up the roster. Two play on Michigan’s club team, five compete at the varsity level and three used to represent the block ‘M’ in their college years.
There are 12 Division I soccer players on the roster, five of which play for Michigan: redshirt sophomore defender Michael Kapitula, redshirt sophomore midfielder Tyler Anderson, sophomore midfielder Tristan Jacob, junior defender Lars Eckenrode and senior defender Jack Brown.
Of the five, only Ann Arbor native Jacob was available for the inaugural match against San Marino. It was Jacob’s first day of eligibility, and also his first time playing with his new teammates.
“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t know how these guys want it or how they play,’ ” Jacob said. “But I thought I got used to it and our team gelled by the end.”
Jacob graduated from Pioneer High School in 2014, but hasn’t played on Hollway Field in three years. He didn’t play for Pioneer in his final two seasons because of his involvement with the Crew Soccer Academy Wolves, so he feels that he’s finally getting that missed experience back.
“It was great,” Jacob said. “My family was here, and I saw so many of my friends’ families here. Even my neighbors came out, and it made for an amazing atmosphere.”
Jacob is awaiting the arrival of his Michigan teammates, many of which went home for a week to visit with family, and he can’t wait to practice with them once more.
AFCAA coach David Hebestreit (pronounced heeb-street) is looking forward to having the rest of his players for the summer as well.
“We’re waiting for 12 Division I players to show up, but that doesn’t mean the players that were here tonight won’t compete,” Hebestreit said following the May 1 loss to San Marino. “I think Lars Eckenrode will be a huge addition when it comes to leadership out of the back. Tonight we had good play out of the back, but we didn’t have leadership out of the back, and I think Lars will bring that.”
There are also players from Colgate, Xavier, Stony Brook, Albany and Liberty. The team boasts more than just players from all over the United States though.
“We have players from Switzerland, Nigeria, Germany and colleges all across the United States,” Hebestreit said. “It’s not a challenge at all — I mean it can be challenging (but) it’s not something I don’t want to do.
“I find it remarkably energizing to bring all of these people together and get into a training sessions and just let everyone be themselves and see what we can do with it.”
This isn’t the first time Hebestreit has brought a community together.
He has been the coach of the Michigan club soccer team for nine years, while also teaching creative writing, composition and literature at Livonia Public Schools. Now, he can tack on another title: head coach of AFC Ann Arbor.
“All three jobs are the same thing,” Hebestreit said. “All three jobs are community building, working with young adults and trying to help make an impact on their growth, whether that be in the classroom or on the field or in-between for all of those, helping them with daily things.”
Hebestreit is at the helm of a team that links the Michigan soccer family, past through present. He wants his players to be involved in the community, and wants success from a diverse group of players. His goals for the team align perfectly with the community’s desire for an involved, family-friendly environment.
“I feel so fortunate, like I stumbled and somehow fell into a pot of honey,” Hebestreit said. “The ownership group ballooned, and then the community got involved, and then the players showed up. It’s really an amazing thing and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it.”
Hebestreit keeps in close contact with Michigan coach Chaka Daley, updating him on his players’ challenges and improvements. Unlike most colleges, where there’s a clear divide between the club and varsity level, Hebestreit has maintained a close relationship with Daley.
The two work together at the prospective player camp in the summer, allowing Hebestreit to become familiar with all of the club and varsity players. It made the transition to minor league soccer easier for some of the varsity members.
Hebestreit has experienced the game at many levels, from being named an NAIA All-American at Aquinas to playing professionally in Poland for Stal Mielec. He even played on Ann Arbor’s last minor league soccer team, the Ann Arbor Elite, in 1995.
His familiarity with the game and the community seem to be working for AFCAA so far.
“I think it’s pretty evident that the team is important to the community,” Hebestreit said. “Our first game, which was just a friendly, had 2,500 people there. It was just wonderful, the whole event. I’m seeing people wearing uniforms on the streets, I’m seeing the decals in the windows of restaurants and I’m seeing stickers on computers and backpacks. It’s just pretty darn cool.
“I think the team is important to the community, and they’re showing that by coming out in droves.”
While attending a game at Hollway field, there are two different seating options. The field is simply laid out, with an east section labeled “a little rowdier” and a “family seating” section on the west.
From the get-go, AFCAA’s team of eight co-owners aimed to have both fan groups. According to co-owner Adam Lowenstein, both crowds are necessary for the team’s success.
“I think it will be something that people really look forward to every summer,” Lowenstein said. “Something that is engrained in the fabric of Ann Arbor, just like Top of the Park or Sonic Lunch.”
Added Hebestreit: “The energy from the supporter group was feeding right through myself and the players on the bench. The nice thing about the Main Street Hooligans was that they were so awesome and appropriate. They were organized for the first time and not hurling insults at players or referees, they were really a wonderful group. The energy was something that you can’t manufacture.”
Adam Schmader sat on the opposite side of the field while his two elementary-aged sons ran around with friends. He goes to some Michigan men’s soccer games with his family, but was happy to hear that Ann Arbor would have its own team. Schmader jumped on the team’s initial crowdfunding campaign a year ago, when the team was just an idea.
A year later, he enjoyed the game while his children explored. They could have been down by the fence watching the game, in the YMCA Kids Skills Area or listening to live music while eating snacks from one of the food trucks.
Fans are accustomed to buying name-brand foods from large corporations at most sporting events, but AFCAA’S dining options are different. The trucks are all owned by locals, and they serve as a testament to Hebestreit’s dream of a soccer club and community intertwining. The lines were so long that both Hello! Ice Cream and Babo ran out of snacks before halftime.
“The food trucks were great,” Lowenstein said. “People loved them. We’re going to keep that mix, but change it up every once in a while.”
Added Hebestreit: “It’s just somewhere where families can go and parents can feel safe that their kids are running around and having a good time doing something that’s meaningful. I think it’s a wonderful community building event.”
Since May 1, AFCAA has tacked on another loss with the absence of the majority of its 12 Division I players, but it also recorded its first victory in club history.
In its win against AFC Cleveland, the connection to the University was quite evident.
“We had eight or nine players that had ties to Michigan, so that makes it a little bit easier, but I thought the morale and chemistry was pretty spectacular yesterday,” Hebestreit said a day after the 3-2 victory over Cleveland. “Even in those tough moments when we were up 3-0 and gave up two goals, there was no yelling at each other and people were still supporting one another and they were positive and that’s always a good thing to see.”
Its second home game is on May 15 against Oakland United, and Ann Arbor fans can expect to see their neighbors, both in the stands and on the field. They can expect to see kids running through the YMCA skills course, trying to break their previous record.
And most importantly, they can expect to see their family to grow from beyond that of the Big House just across the street. With a passionate coach and a vibrant community, the ‘Oak’ can only grow stronger.